Anti-Racism Training Module

Below is the information about a training in September 2015 that I led for the activist council of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship.  We have covenanted to deal with questions and learnings around race and privilege each time we gather.  

Thank you to Abbi Heimach who helped work on this module for training and Joe Paparone from Labor-Religion Coalition who helped co-facilitate.  

This was a training created specifically for a group that was mostly Euro-American (white) and is at a beginning phase of its thinking/interrogating collectively and personally.  We noticed that as we got into the Q&A time there were varying degrees of receptivity and difficulty going deep and personal into self-interrogration or self-interruption of internal racial cues.  We set the room up in round tables and people were invited to mix into different groups for conversations/discussion.  We had pauses for conversation and time for “report back” and group reflection.    This was broken into two parts:

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Part One:

We began with the setting of ground rules.  These come from Eric Law’s work around Respectful Communications Guidelines.

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We then introduced the topic with a reminder of our covenant to work on this issue as a group.  We discussed how we will take collective ownership for our conversation, that if there are parts that concern or upset/offend any of us, we should feel free and safe to bring them to the group for conversation.  

We began with biblical reflection on Ecclesiastes 3.  We read this often quoted passage about time and invited us to consider the conversation about anti-racism and undoing racism in ourselves in the context of time:

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We asked some opening questions:

“Why are we still a nearly all white organization that has as its core ideas like “transformation,” “nonviolence,” and “peacemaking?”  This requires we not only take a very hard look at ourselves, but also work on our learning on these issues at every opportunity we have, because the fact that our organization is set up the way it is means that we have a problem.  What is it about the system that we have that makes it inhospitable to people of color?  What are the subtleties at play as an organization and for us as individuals that create this inhospitable climate that we barely even recognize?”

We then set the stage with the watching of a video by Ta-Nehishi Coates, as a way for the group to listen to a “younger” voice who is not from the generation of the Civil Rights Movement (which is what the Peace Fellowship often listens to).  We also wanted to push a group committed to nonviolence to listen to someone who is not committed to nonviolence.   As a group committed to Christian faith we wanted to push the limits to listen to someone who self-describes as atheist.  

We chose this clip to challenge a number of boundaries but to also offer an opportunity for deep listening.  Click on link below:

http://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2015/9/7/ta_nehisi_coates_on_police_brutality

Part Two:

Pre-reading was assigned, in the form of an article by Robin DiAngelo on the concept of White Fragility.  The article can be found here.  

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We then broke into our groups and invited small groups into times to interrogate a series of questions in small groups and then to process in the larger group.  The groups were invited to think in deep and personal ways about each of these questions.  The first slide was to discuss the larger themes in DiAngelo’s work and what White Fragility looks like:

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These were the four questions we asked, going into greater levels of difficulty with each question.  We noticed that some went right into personal interrogation with these questions, others were not able to do that internal work and so stayed on the surface and dealt in organizational dynamics.  Every one of us is different in our ability to enter into these conversations.  It was clear that at the end there was a sense of tiredness in the room, this is difficult work!  Nothing was answered, nothing was finished, this was just one step in the holy work we have before us to know ourselves more deeply and understand our own internal cues as we seek to build beloved community.  

Question One:

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Question Two:

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Question Three:

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Question Four:

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Additional Questions that we had prepared based on DiAngelo’s work but that we did not have time for in this training:

  1. How do you react when it is suggested that your viewpoint as a white person comes from a racialized frame of reference? (challenge to objectivity)
  2. How does it feel to you when people of color talk openly about their own racial perspectives?  (such as the video we just watched) (challenge to white taboos on talking openly about race)
  3. What does it feel like when you are provided feedback that your actions had a racist impact?  (challenge to white racial innocence)
  4. Do you feel that access is unequal in different racial groups?  How does it feel when people of color describe this unequal access in our church? (challenge to meritocracy)
  5. What is it like for you, really like for you, when a person of color is in a leadership position?  (challenge to white authority)
  6. What it is like for you to watch a movie or go to a show, or read a book when there are no white people represented and the entire drama/story is all around people of color, but not in stereotypical roles?  (challenge to white centrality)
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Peace | A Sermon

On Sunday August 23, 2015 I was invited to preach at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Albany.  My sermon was inspired by this photograph of a Syrian father escaping on a boat with his children.  During worship we put this image up on the screen in front of us and looked at it as we read scripture and as we mediated on the Word of God.  

Much of my sermon exegesis was inspired by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns in Ambassadors of Reconciliation

Scripture for the Sermon: Ephesians 6: 10-20

To give to help in Syria please visit the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website.  

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Photo credit: Daniel Etter @DanielEtterFoto

On Monday of this week, at nearly 4AM local time on the shores of Kos, Greece a Syrian father walked off a small boat that was built for three people but ferried eight to safety. As he worked his way off the boat, that was badly damaged, he sobbed as he cradled the head of his young son who was leaning against his father and crying. In his arms he carried his young daughter, her little body held safely in a green lifejacket. Their mother was behind them and also about to get off the boat.

 

We know this because a freelance photographer from the New York Times[1] was also there and caught this moment on film. A mix of emotions, gratitude, pain, and grief—all caught up in one photograph. During this month of August over 100 thousand refugees have attempted to gain access to Europe—fleeing one war or another. And like in our country, there has been a backlash of ugly, hate-filled anti-immigrant language and propaganda against these refugees. And this photograph of this father, sobbing as he walked onto shore has been a counter-narrative—to show the human face of war. And the human need that every parent has, to make a place of safety for their children.

 

I tell this story as a way of framing our scripture for today. Paul is writing to us from jail. He is writing with deep theological conviction about the “divided house” of his time and creating it anew, based on race, class and gender equality, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) As we see in Ephesians, and in our world today, that challenge, fight, and divided house is very present.

 

In Pauls’ time it was Jews and Gentiles, Romans and the underclass, wealth and grinding poverty.  

 

In our time there are many lines of division, the ones that haunt us the most these days are human-made divisions of race and country.

 

How can we hear Paul’s words from so many years ago in a new way today?

 

How can we hear in Paul new things to help us in our ongoing work as disciples of the risen Christ?

 

Can we, as disciples of Jesus Christ—find new ways to live into our calling to be peace-makers and peace-seekers, especially in this time we live in?

 

Let us listen to Paul in Ephesians again:

 

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our[a] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these,[b] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[c] for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

 

I must admit that this is a passage from Ephesians that has long has been a challenge to me. The images that on the surface, seem violent, even warlike have troubled me theologically. But how can I see these images in a new way, and how can they help us as we seek to be Christ in the situations we encounter today—situations that are so complex and so full of hatred and division?

 

And lastly—how can we name Evil when we see it? Paul does not shy away in this passage from using that name—Evil, to address the spiritual forces of divisiveness in heavenly places. The Evil of hatred, of division—one of my deepest questions today is, “What do we do when Evil is cloaked and excused by theological language or even our communities of faith? How deep must our spiritual work be as people of Jesus to root that out?”

 

Let us turn and listen to the metaphors and imagery that Paul puts before us today, perhaps in a new way:

 

  • The Belt of Truth—Paul tells us to “fasten this around our waist.” This reminds me of the image of a worker, who has their tools fastened to their belt. When then put their belt on in the morning it has everything in it that they might need. In the same way as followers of Jesus we are called to fasten a Belt of Truth around our waists. Rather than physical tools what might be in our belt? Scripture, our faith, our experiences and interactions as those seeking to live out the way of Christ. Paul is not the first one to invite this image, it first comes from Isaiah 11, the messianic promise, He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
  • Breastplate of Righteousness—Paul continues his use of Isaiah with the image of the breastplace of righteousness. A breastplate as something we put over our torso to protect it, especially our hearts—from injury or harm. Later in Isaiah 59 we hear these words, “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.” Paul brings us back to the idea in Isaiah that God is displeased with the idea that we do not handle evil for what it is, or that we do not intervene when peace or justice is at stake. This is a challenge that is issued to us and that that Paul was issuing to the community of faith around him at the time—to stand up, to act, to intervene, to get in the way. Even Paul, from jail is encouraging his fellow followers of Jesus to take bold peace-building steps of faith—even if it might land them back in the place where he is. Paul is inviting us to be protectors of vulnerable communities—taking God’s breastplate as our protection.
  • Shoes—Paul tells us to put on our feet whatever “will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace.”       Isaiah writes these words that Paul seems to be alluding to: “How welcome on the mountain are the feet of the one heralding peace.” (Isa 52:7). One translation of this passage from Isaiah that I love is, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings peace.” It is no wonder that Paul and Isaiah before him uses feet as the metaphor here.       Feet in their time were dirty, they were not perfectly kept as so many of our feet are today, pedicured, placed in beautiful shoes, just another fashion accessory that we might have. Feet then were naked, or maybe with just sandals to protect them. The ground was dirty. Feet were oftentimes not beautiful. Years ago I preached a sermon on this passage in Isaiah and the title of my sermon was “Beautiful Feet.” Do you have beautiful feet? Do I? Do We?       Our feet are only beautiful when they are the part of our body that carries us, walks us, runs us into the places where we bring about Christ’s peace. Where do your feet take you every day? Do they take you to a place where you are a peacemaker?       This is the challenging question Paul is asking us here.
  • Shield of Faith—In Psalm 91 the Psalmist writes these words, “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” It is true that as we seek to follow God, to be the people of peace we are called to be, that arrows will come our way. Some will seek to discredit us. Others to stop us. Paul of course, is very familiar with this issue; he is, after all, writing from jail! God will protect us—and Paul writes these words to remind us of God’s love, care and protection.
  • Helmet of Salvation—Again, this image comes to Paul from Isaiah 59, it completes the image of the breastplate—together a helmet and breastplate were the best protection one had in battle in the time of Paul. He is turning militaristic imagery on its head to repurpose it for God’s peace—a powerful message as he was imprisoned by soldiers. A helmet’s purpose is to protect our heads—and what is inside…our brains, one of our most important and most vulnerable organs. What is most vulnerable in our communities? What is most in danger, or most unable to protect itself?       These images we have of those who have been made vulnerable this summer—refugees, victims of war, children, the pastor and members of the church in Charleston who were gunned down simply because they were African-American. This is vulnerability—and I see God’s Spirit putting a new sort of helmet around them, a new sort of protection. How can we serve as God’s helmet of protection around those who are most vulnerable? How can doing so be our act of faith in Jesus Christ?
  • Sword of the Spirit—the Word of God: God’s Word is our ultimate tool. We are reminded by Paul that it is not just our actions, but our words. It is not just how we are—but by what code we live. It is not just what we do but what we say. The Word of God is a gift that brings us new life in every stage of our lives and the life of this world. The Word of God is what we learn as children and then spend our entire lives deepening our understanding of. The Word of God is what gives us hope and what brings people to faith.       As we proclaim peace—it is important that we do not just proclaim what we hear or what is said around us, but that our words are rooted and come out of the well of God’s peace, God’s love and God’s life that we see in Jesus—who was the living Word.

 

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit—the tools God gives to us to do the work of peace that is so urgently before us.

 

Let me close where I started. The image, the picture of the father clutching his children, tears filling his eyes as they got to a place of safety.

 

As the Church, the body of Christ, we are the heirs of the call to be peacemakers.

 

This is a call that is full of cost, danger and also promise.   This summer we have seen and continue to hear the loud voices of racism and xenophobia all around us. As we enter into an election season in this country, these voices are especially loud. They are rewarded in our culture by television news shows that follow the god of ratings, money and viewers. And in doing so, these voices are amplified. And their harm increases.

 

The killings of African-American church goers earlier this summer haunts my soul every day. Since that day in June I just cannot get that massacre out of my mind. We are living in moments in the life of the Church and in the life of our faith that are pivot-points.

 

The invitation of Christ comes back to us again and again:

 

Follow Me.

Follow Me.

Follow Me.

 

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/kos-crisis-the-story-behind-the-photograph-of-a-syrian-father-shared-by-thousands-online-10461933.html

Some Thoughts on Race and Leadership

It has been very hard for me to put into words some of my reflections around the murder of the nine members of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC.   Nothing feels adequate.  

This is what I wrote to Albany Presbytery for our e-news this week.  A beginning of where my thoughts and prayers are.   Peace….

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Monday night I had the opportunity to worship at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Albany.  Jim Reisner and some of the members from Westminster/Albany also joined the open invitation of the new pastor of the congregation for anyone who wanted to come together to pray and talk about the racially-motivated murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church.  At the end of the candlelight vigil the Pastor urged us to turn to the people near to us and that we did not know, to hug them and say, “I love you.”  

I found myself wrapped in the embrace of and offering an embrace back to an African-American man perhaps a bit younger than me who I was meeting for the first time in this hug.  

He said to me, “I love you.”  

I said to him, “I love you too.”  

And he held onto me for a few extra moments.  

And I could feel his body shaking as he cried.  

I was also crying.

And so we held onto each other, strangers.  

It was a beautiful moment of the love of God, two people embracing as brother and sister in faith, even though strangers.  I will cherish that embrace.   

Pain and sadness is around us.  

Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pickney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr. Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson.  

These nine people were murdered inside of their church last week during Bible study.  They welcomed their killer into their midst with Christian hospitality.  And they were repaid with hate, violence, terror and racism.  

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I am completely broken hearted over what has happened.  It is unfathomable to me.  It might be easy for me, a white person, to dismiss the actions of the killer and believe that as a white person I can distance myself from this act.  In some ways I can, but in other ways, of course I cannot.  None of us is immune from this sin of racism.  I know my life isn’t.  

And I also know that as a white-majority denomination we have a lot of work to do around questions of race.  Our polity, leadership, educational and worship style is Anglo-centric.  Many of our congregational traditions from the decorations of buildings to the food we serve at coffee hour are part of that heritage.  We are organized for Anglo-centric culture.  

As part of my personal commitment towards ongoing reformation as a disciple of Jesus, I have been meeting once a month on a weeknight evening via online video conference to talk about what it means to be White.  I haven’t made every call and I need to be more diligent.  This is a group of colleagues from around the PC(USA) who are reading the book, Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk about Race and How to Do It.  These are hard conversations but I am finding them to be holy conversations where space is opened up for us to work on ourselves as leaders in the larger church and to be honest with ourselves.  Perhaps this is a resource you might want to share with a colleague-group or a small group that you are a part of for learning and conversation.  We take a chapter a month and rotate facilitation.  Attending the White Privilege Conference earlier this year in Louisville with a team from across the PC(USA) and meeting for evening conversations facilitated by Rev. Molly Casteel of the Office of the General Assembly was also helpful.  Molly will be repeating this opportunity in 2016 when this conference comes closer to us in Philadelphia and I commend it to you.  Hard spiritual work is an essential piece for me as I engage the ongoing journey of living into my ever-changing calling to ministry and discipleship.  

These are important questions related to our transition work in the Presbytery as we seek our missional future.  

The question we raised in March of “What is God’s preferred future for Albany Presbytery?” remains an important one.  

The question of “What breaks God’s heart in your community?” posed at Silver Bay is also key.  

How can we hold these questions and our need for repentance and God’s grace before us not only in this time of transition but in our lives as disciples of the Risen Christ?  What learning and soul searching do we need to engage in?  

The night that shots rang out in the Sanctuary of Mother Emanuel the congregation was engaged in Bible study.  The New York Times reports that the passage they were studying was Mark 4:16-20:

“And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”

Thank you for bearing with my extended reflections in this edition of e-news.  I appreciate the space to share them.  Below are some resources around these issues.  Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to accompany and challenge us in our continued holy conversations…

church2Resources:

Belhar Confession [English, Spanish, Korean]

Gun Violence, Gospel Values  [PC(USA) Policy and Resources approved by the 219th General Assembly.   There is also a documentary video Trigger: The Ripple Effects of Gun Violence that goes with this curriculum.  I have a DVD at the Presbytery office if you would like to borrow it.]

Facing Racism, A Vision of Beloved Community [Approved by the 211th General Assembly]

Allies, The Time for Your Silence Has Expired [written by PCUSA Teaching Elder Tawnya Denise Anderson and reprinted in the Christian Century]

Images:

Najee Washington holds a photo of her grandmother, Ethel Lance.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney

Mother Emanuel AME Church

White Privilege Conference | Day One Fragments

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I am currently attending the White Privilege Conference with a team of leaders from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  We are hear to listen, to learn, to connect, to reflect.  I come to this space with humility.  I am grateful to be here with co-learners.  I am sharing my thoughts as I can–but there is much here to unpack.  This is only a beginning.  

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The first day of the White Privilege Conference has been holy and sacred space. I am so glad that I am here. This is a learning ground unlike any other I have been in.  

There is so much to write about, so much to say about how these things have affected me or what they have invited me to meditate on.   I will try to write more extensively when I have time to process after the conference (and give that reflection the time that is necessary to process appropriately).  

I am grateful that friends and others who know I am here are asking me to share what I am experiencing—and this post is a first attempt at that—but is also incomplete in many ways.

Below are quotes from the opening keynote today with Loretta Ross. Each one is a nugget of a deeper and more provocative question.  

As I listened to her through the lens of my various levels of privilege (those I acknowledge in myself and knowing there are other layers and levels of privilege that I have walled myself off from, yet that I seek to discover)–many thoughts and images came to me, which I will unpack in more detail as I can.

I am sharing what I had time to put down in notes, (even putting it down in this format feels inadequate to me), but I am also seeking to share as much as I can as I go along these next few days.

  • “Everybody swims in the sea of white supremacy.  Only some of us have enough privilege to even challenge it.”
  • “We need to create a movement of many people moving in the same way with one idea.”
  • “White supremacy was always about the ideology of the 1%.” (This means that we have to do movement building across borders and that intersectionality is the key to liberation.)
  • “How can you be a white woman and not understand voting rights?  Think about it disenfranchising women.”  
  • “White people hear “privileged whites” when you say white privilege.  They think to themselves, I work hard, my life sucks, I’m not the 1% (if they know what the 1% is).  We have to find a way to have a conversation that resonates with their reality and doesn’t beat them up.  The victim reality/game is a way that that whites use to inoculate themselves.”  
  • “The mainstream now says its racist to talk about racism.  This is a language coup.”  
  • “White supremacy and ignorance is about anger about anyone else they can ‘other.’   This is what we are here to look at.”
  • “I’m not the movement where you have to agree with me.  I’m the movement where you have to be with me in the struggle.  Struggling against white supremacy.”
  • “Call in, don’t call out.  That’s the way to build a movement. Don’t name call. Don’t show up with your identify wrong in the middle of thanksgiving dinner.”
  • “Need to do our work in a loving way.  Not a hurtful hateful way. We need to keep in mind who we are engaged in this work for.”  
  • “Need to constantly ask ourselves: Are we being strategic about who we are trying to work with?”  
  • “If you do not take people’s pain seriously, they won’t hear you.  Even if it doesn’t feel legit to you.  You have to take it seriously, you do not have to acknowledge it as true.”  
  • “Deflection is when we start talking about racism and somehow we end up on homophobia.”  
  • “Ask others what the words mean to them—to get them to join in on the conversation.  What does racism mean to you?”  
  • “The public education system is being deconstructed because it was forced to integrate.  That’s what we need to look at.”
  • “We don’t have a shared definition of justice or any other words.  This is where we need to start.”
  • “We are going to have to address that perception of victimhood in reverse racism if we want to get somewhere.”
  • “Storytelling is being repackaged as something for us to do to discover ourselves.”  
  • “Those who want to fight white supremacy need an Economics 101 class.  The 1% no longer needs the producers of the goods in order to have the goods.  That’s why the middle class is disappearing.”  
  • “Many times the economic facts are the connecting facts for those who want to listen.”
  • “Standing in solidarity doesn’t mean standing in front. You are then a problematic ally not an enemy.”  
  • “White supremacy normalized racial violence which then normalizes other violences.”
  • Provocative intersectional question: “Should shelters take in victims of racial violence who have nowhere to go, homophobic violence who have no where to go, not just for women who are beaten?  Where do we go with that?”

What wells up in you as you read some of this?  

What are the connections to the work of dismantling systems of power/domination/oppression that you engage?  

A Life Raft for Lent

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It was wonderful to be invited to preach the first Sunday in Lent 2015 at United Presbyterian in Amsterdam, NY.  We had a beautiful experience of worship together as we meditated on scripture from Genesis 9: 8-17.  

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This past week I had two spiritual conversations. One with a longtime friend who is also in ministry and the other with a colleague here in this Presbytery. The conversations were different—but both were moments when I could feel God’s Spirit breaking into my life and into theirs, and that the conversation was not just between the two of us, but that the Spirit had come and pulled up a chair alongside us.   I love it when conversations like these happen—unexpected gifts, beautiful offerings of not only friendship—but deep and real conversation with others who are engaged in seeking God and who want to share time to talk about how that’s going.

 

The first conversation was with Earl Johnson, who some of you know, he was the longtime pastor at the Johnstown Church, nearby—and he’s also been the author of a couple of books and a column in the national publication, the Presbyterian Outlook. Earl called to talk with me about a new book he’s considering and shopping around for a contract to write. It’s on the Gospel of Mark, which is the Gospel we are in the midst of listening to in worship during this Lenten Season.   Mark also is my favorite Gospel, so I was eager to talk and hear what Earl was up to in his head with these new ideas for a new book. Earl also wanted to talk with me about ecology and environmental destruction and how as a Presbytery we can be and do more around this top issue for people of faith. Larry Deyss, who has been preaching here this month, is equally concerned that we find ways to engage and address issues around the environment as people of faith. Earl had some new ideas for me on Mark’s Gospel and some new ways of looking at it. It was a fascinating conversation, listening to his thoughts and being reminded again of why it is we still study these ancient words, over 2000 years old—why they still make sense for our life today. I hope we see this new book out of Earl, it will be a gem and a gift to all of us.

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Thursday night I had dinner with one of my girlfriends, who is also a pastor and who I worked with for five years in my last call, she served at a neighboring congregation to the one I served and she and I have many things in common, including that her daughter is a senior at the same school where I went to college and like my family, she has a pet rabbit.   We had the typical girlfriend’s dinner, talking and catching up—my daughter Sofia joined us. It was just good fun. Of course, much to my daughter’s dismay—and she told us to knock it off—almost as soon as we started—we started talking about church. Karen asked if I was preaching this Sunday and I said I was. She shared that in her research on the Hebrew Scripture reading for Sunday, where we hear the story of Noah building the ark, that the Hebrew word for ark is the same word that is used later in Exodus when we hear the story about the Baby Moses and his mother making a nest-like boat for him out of pitch and sticks to float away on the Nile River. The Hebrew word TEBAH is the same for both the ark and the little raft for the Baby Moses. I had never heard this before, and never learned it. To be honest, I really struggled with my Hebrew in seminary so it’s not surprising I missed this little detail.

The word is not used to describe anything else in the Bible, just these two things, which means it is a special word.

Now I do not know if that gets you excited, but it really excites me! It means that what we take for granted as the-story-we-all-know about the ark has something even deeper going on. When the word is translated into our language, English—the translation is LIFESAVER.  

The Ark of course, saved lots of lives—the lives of the people and the animals on the boat—and then all of our lives afterwards. And the basket that was made by Moses’ mother and that she and his sister set off into the Nile River saved not just his life but later through Moses—the live of the Israelite people. These LIFESAVERS in the biblical narrative are not just about one specific person or one specific group being saved, but about a whole bunch of people—an entire group in need. Maybe Noah’s family, maybe Moses’ mother and sister only though it was about them—but in God’s larger plan—it was about so much more than that. God’s LIFESAVER or LIFERAFT is bigger and more expansive than we could ever imagine.

 

All of this has gotten me to thinking—where are my life rafts?

Where are the life rafts for our churches today?

For our communities?

For groups of people or in the spirit of today’s reading—for groups or species of animals that struggle to stay alive?

What gifts come along and into our lives in new and fresh ways that literally show us the way or show us the path—something that was obscured and difficult to find or even to perceive?

And when do we truly need a life-saver or a life-raft?

The other question is—do we still believe in these miracles? Do we still believe that God is going to provide such things for us?

An even scarier or more provocative question—what if the lifesaver or the life-raft God sends us (and I believe that God always does), isn’t what we wanted, or doesn’t look like what we think we need, or is so strange we do not even recognize it? What do we do then?!

 

Let me say that my two conversations with spiritual friends, both of them very different people in my life were lifesaving moments for me this week. They were unexpected gifts that arrived in my life and helped me to see God in a new way and to hear the call of Jesus once again.

 

Other life-rafts or life-savers for me this week?

The joy and time I spent with my daughter, we had so much fun together this week, more fun that we’ve had in a while!

Working the grill for two hours straight at another church in our Presbytery frying bacon for a youth group fundraiser and remembering during that time my first call in ministry and the many, many other times I helped youth groups raise money for summer mission trips with pancake dinners. I felt like I was going back and using old spiritual and vocational muscles that have been dormant in my life for a while. And it felt good.

Catching glimpses of beauty even in the midst of our snowy and cold weather.

Reaching my hand out of the car window yesterday to hand a homeless man standing in the freezing cold looking for money. Our hands briefly touched and he said to me, “God bless you.” Why should I receive such a blessing as I drove away in my warm car with a full tank of gas? What sort of grace was that?

After washing dishes one night this week turning salsa music up loud and dancing in the kitchen with my husband.

A text from a friend with news that made me laugh at the ridiculousness of life.

A call with a mentor about plans for the future and ministries that transform.

Gentle nudging words pushing me in directions I need to go, and caring words to remind me that together we are on the right path.

 

I share these moments from my life this week because we all have these moments. They are different for each of us, but God shows up and offers us a glimpse of heaven and a glimpse of grace.

In ways that are big and ways that are small and mundane.

God is always around, always nearby, always present.

We just have to open our eyes and look.

 

I think I might not have noticed those moments I just described as lifesavers or liferafts for myself if over dinner on Thursday night my friend Karen hadn’t shared what her study of the Bible had taught her this week. I might have looked at them differently. And yet a door was opened.

 

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. These 40 days are about paying closer attention to God and deepening our spiritual journeys. In your bulletin you will find some ideas about Lent and a calendar for you to use with your children, grandchildren and your families.

I want to encourage you to dwell on this image of a lifesaver.

A life raft.

Where is it for you each day?

What small act of salvation happens in your life, the life of this congregation, this community or our world.

We desperately need them in ways that are big and ways that are small.

 

Lent is about drawing closer to Jesus, the ultimate salvation, the ultimate grace. Seeing him face-to-face in a new way on Easter. Receiving the grace that propels us forward into a living that is a life-raft, a life-saver for others.

 

Grace, love, salvation.

 

Let us pray…..

 

Amen….

DREAMers for Moral Monday

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Today I was honored to stand with the youth of We are One New York as we held a lobby day at part of NY Moral Mondays with the Labor-Religion Coalition for the DREAM Act.  Many youth from around our State came today to lobby, to stand and be counted, to say in public, “I am undocumented,” and to tell their story without fear.  These youth are an inspiration.  They are our future.  Below are my comments at the press conference held in the State Capital Building today.  

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Good afternoon.  My name is Reverend Shannan Vance-Ocampo, I am an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and am here today on this Moral Monday to speak in favor of the NY DREAM ACT and that it is included in the NY State Budget without exception for the fiscal year 2016. 

I come today to offer this testimony both as a person of faith and also as the spouse of an immigrant.  My husband, Juan Gabriel Ocampo Valle of Colombia is here with me today along with our daughter.

I am proud to be married to an immigrant.

Those who come to this country to live are no different from those of us like myself whose family history goes back generations.  People come to this country in search of a new future. Oftentimes the reasons they make the difficult journey to be in the United States is a result of war, environmental degradation, or economic instability.  We have a role and a responsibility here in the Global North in the reasons some leave their countries of origin to come here.  I can tell you that those who come as immigrants to this country do not make the decision lightly and it is not without deep personal consequence.  Living in a new place, adapting to a new culture are things that are difficult and exact a cost.  It is doubly heartbreaking for parents to come to the United States with dreams for their children to find out that they are then cut off from the access they deserve to educational opportunities. 

It is unjust for children who have now grown into young adults, having lived in this country their entire lives to find out that their “welcome” only extends so far and they are cut off from all of the opportunities that higher education would afford them. 

It is reckless to stifle to the innovation, expertise and global acumen that these young people bring to this country. 

Why is my daughter, a child of an immigrant, who will have all of the opportunities offered to her in six years when she wants to go to college so different from another child whose parents are also immigrants?  Why is she more deserving? 

We have a legalized system of racial and economic discrimination set in place in our State and this cannot stand.  As people of faith we say that this is immoral.

We must demand that the NY DREAM Act is fully funded and placed into our budget priorities as a State without delay.

It is a bedrock principal of not just my faith tradition, but of many that the immigrant should not only be offered a welcome—but should be honored.  In the Hebrew Scriptures Hannah gives birth to Samuel, and travels with him to a distant land to present him at the Temple in hopes that he will have a better life.  She sees her child as a blessing from God and in an act of thanksgiving offers him to God.  Like so many parents Hannah sacrifices all that she has wanted and dreamed for so that her child’s future might be better.   We are reminded in the ancient scriptures that we are to love and welcome the foreigner because we were once foreigners in the land, in need of care and of help.  As Christians we know that Jesus always served in lands and with groups of people that were cut off from opportunity, leadership or economic help.  Indeed after the Resurrection Jesus appears to “strangers” in a community, to women and to those who are seen as the most unlikely ones for him to walk with.  Power and privilege in our biblical text is the opposite from our first world, capitalistic “values”.  Power and privilege in our biblical texts is always primarily for those who have been left out, ignored or asked to hide in the shadows by those who seek power. 

It is unacceptable and offensive to those who claim a faith whose foundation is built on a Child whose parents were immigrants seeking a better future, who were undocumented, who had to depend on the hospitality of others for their future that we would turn our back on and ignore the immigrants in our midst and their needs—especially immigrant children.

We are here today to say to the Governor and those in our State Legislature: We are watching you. We are paying attention. We will hold you accountable for your actions. We expect the DREAM Act to pass this year.

Black lives matter.

Brown lives matter.

Immigrant lives matter.

Our children and youth’s lives matter.

Pass the NY Dream Act.

Thank you. 

Open Letter re: PCUSA Special Offerings

Some of you might not be Presbyterians or know what’s going on or why I’m writing this.  Here’s why.  Earlier this weekend, our central denominational office released this press release to celebrate our new materials for Special Offerings.  This created a firestorm on social media among Presbyterians across the board.  The full ad campaign can be found here.   I am sharing my letter in the spirit of openness, as one of the people who took great offense at these ads and in the hopes that our denominational leadership will listen and start over again with a real campaign that is reflective of the best of our denomination and the tradition of these offerings and the excellent ministries they support.   I am so bothered by the images and their messaging that I am not sharing the images on my personal blog.  

________

January 10, 2015

Dear Linda (Valentine),

I am writing to you out of my great concern and profound sadness over the rollout that I just became aware of over this weekend of the 2015 Special Offerings.  I find the ads to be offensive, racist and inappropriate for use in congregations.

Offensive

When I was 19 years old my father died of complications and illness from years of alcoholism.   His addiction broke our family in many ways and its wreckage hurt not only him but everyone around him.   I found healing, hope and renewal in the congregation that helped raise me in faith.   Addiction is a disease that ravages the lives of everyone in its path.  It is not appropriate for an ad campaign to raise money for faith-based ministries to do so making light of addiction.   The use of children, people of many different ages and races adds increasing offense.  Pairing the idea of “getting high” with a flood is beyond the pale.  Natural disasters trigger many recovering addicts into relapses.   We are raising money for disaster relief with these ads and then making light of the actual trauma that people in those situations and many others suffer.

Racist

These images are racist.  Trying to be “provocative” as the documents with the offering state, but using images that then get flipped on their head to be something different is unacceptable.  Are all Latino men users who want to get “high?”  Are all young Asian girls plagued with drinking problems?  Young African-American boys with “anger issues?”  Young women to be “put in their places?”   (note: these were actual pairings of such people and thoughts in the ads, then with the “twist”)  My husband is Latino and my daughter is bi-racial.  I am personally offended on many levels by these “ads.”  We are a denomination that is over 93% Euro-American, white.  I understand that our African-American and Hispanic/Latino Caucuses and staff raised questions about these offerings prior to their release for the reasons I have outlined above and were ignored.  We are nowhere near understanding or attending to the level of privilege we carry within ourselves.

 Inappropriate for Use in Congregations

Most congregations are home to 12-step recovery programs and many host community groups.  What would it feel like to a recovering addict or a person brought low by disaster who enters one of our church buildings looking for help, solace, friendship and the grace of God to see one of these posters?  What message would it communicate?  What harm would that do to the image and witness of our local congregations, many of which are struggling so deeply these days?   It is the job of the staff of our larger church to help come alongside so that ministry can flourish.  These posters would inhibit that.

I understand the desire to raise money for these special offerings.  I am a fan of and have given generously to all of these offerings over the years.  Last year I worked with your office on some of the graphics for the 2014 Special Offerings that focused on our ministry in Colombia.  This is not what I and so many expect from the Presbyterian Mission Agency.   These ads belittle our mission and ministry and are theologically bereft.  Please direct your staff to start over again with a real marketing campaign that reflects the diversity and ministry of our denomination so that we can be proud once again to be sharing the story of these ministries we each hold so dear.  Thank you for listening to the strong concerns I have raised and that I know many others are sharing with you this weekend.

Sincerely,

Rev. Shannan R. Vance-Ocampo

cc:        Marilyn Gamm, PMA

             Sam Locke, Special Offerings

             Terri Bate, Funds Development

Continued Notes/Thoughts on Race and #SynodNE2014

 This past weekend I attended the Synod Assembly (2014) for the Synod of the Northeast.  I have been convening its working group on Emerging Leadership and you can read my statement and report about that here.  

Another new and important area of work and ministry for the Synod is the Working Group on Race.  This group is new in its formation and we began the year with time with Dr. James Cone of Union Seminary.  I previously blogged on the time together with him and that’s here.  

So, this past weekend we were led by my friend Margaret Aymer (video above of the conversation with Margaret, which was amazing time spent togetheras per usual).  The conversation on Friday night led into some time on Saturday and Sunday of a resolution being presented and passed (below) to the Synod.  It engendered a lot of conversation.  Some of it good.  What I appreciated was that people came to the conversation honestly and said things in an open space.  And listened.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good start.  So I think the Synod is opening up some space for these conversations.  Doesn’t mean they are easy or nice.  But there was at least some space for some honest talking together.  

And some of the conversations troubled me, but I have a hard time sometimes when we talk about race because my feelings about the topic are made up so much by watching the difficulty my husband had navigating the immigration system in the United States and seeing the deep-seated racism in that system.  And the racism in that system comes full force at my husband, who is Latino, but who is light-skinned, has a lot of education (privilege) and is pretty well engrained in the “system” here in the United States.  And we feel it in other ways on other days too.  It’s pretty exhausting.  Our daughter who is bi-racial holds within her worry and fear about the immigration process, even though we’ve explained to her many times that her father has a passport, but something about immigration police still scares her very much.  We explain to her that no one is getting deported and yet she sees the news, hears the racial slurs against immigrants/Latinos and worries about her beloved father.  She gets this nervous look in her eyes if a conversation around these things comes up and for me as a parent this is haunting.  She’s talked to me about feeling like she has to pass over her identity in order to “fit in” in a white-dominant culture.  And she’s just 12.  As a parent this is so heartbreaking I do not even have words to describe it.  In recent weeks I have been watching incredibly racist commentary by some of the people I know about Ebola and our President on Facebook.  I’m pretty disturbed by what some people who we know say in a public forum and what sort of messaging their kids are getting.  It is a minefield just to send your child out into the world, and then a child who has one parent who is an immigrant feels just overwhelming some days.  I struggle much of the time with the radicalized atmosphere in church life today and the difficulty in navigating that is hard on me much of the time.  It is painful to me how unaware that system is much of the time.  We have so much spiritual work to do.   And yet I also live with the idea and reality that I am part of of the “power group” and I’ve got tons upon tons of privilege in our system.   The sin of racism lives within my life just as much as it does for anyone else.  And the complications and pain of racism hurt the two people I love the most in this world, my daughter and my husband.  

So I am really grateful that our Synod is working on this incredibly complicated conversation and engaging it from a faith perspective.  We certainly have a long way to go.  And lots to learn and engage with.  But I am grateful we are on the road of faith and conversation and we are being community with and for each other as we do this.  

An event held at a church in NJ last weekend modeled after a traditional Good Friday worship service for Holy Week.  These are the last words of seven different African-American youth killed recently.  You can follow this conversation at #7lastwords

An event held at Shiloh Baptist Church (NJ) last weekend modeled after a traditional Good Friday worship service for Holy Week. These are the last words of seven different African-American youth killed by police, vigilantes or security personnel. You can follow this conversation at #7lastwords  This event was co-sponsored by Princeton Theological Seminary.

Even though this is good and a sign of hope, we have a long way to go.  

Below is the statement from this weekend from the Synod which is just that, a statement.  Nothing special about it until we do something with it and take ourselves out onto the streets and into the communities around us.  I know some of us are starting this work throughout the Synod and aligning ourselves with partners nearby.   Someone said to me last night as we were reflecting on last weekend that he was reached out to by a pastor near Ferguson who said it feels odd for people to be getting involved in his local community without real context.  I agree with that.  Let’s pay attention to where it is we are rooted and doing ministry.  And where racism lives in that place.  And get working/engaged/learning on that as people of faith.  And pay attention to the larger picture that we are involved in at the same time.  

Also below are some resources that informed much of the conversation this past weekend and the information the commissioners were given.  I think having the resources helps to frame where people where coming from and provides a framework for learning for congregations who might be wondering where to start.  

I want to say again that I highly recommend reading The Cross and the Lynching Tree (James Cone) and The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander) side-by-side.  Both are amazing recent books and alone are wonderful but read together provides sociological and theological context that I’m just not sure is present anywhere else right now.  I’m rereading these two books right now.  Dr. Cone’s book should be read by anyone leading a faith community today and their leadership body.   I am grateful that one of the congregations in the Presbytery I serve is planning to read together The New Jim Crow in early 2015 and I’m looking forward to engaging with them as they learn and listen to the Spirit during that sacred conversation.  

For me this is an ongoing sacred conversation I am having with my family, my friends, my mentors and my community(s).  I am committed to continuing to post learnings as they emerge.   

Statement/Resolution of the Synod of the Northeast at its 2014 Assembly:

The Synod of the Northeast is alarmed by the frequent occurences of police brutality in the United States, that are grounded in historic patterns and structures of racism in which all of us are complicit. We emphatically denounce this violence, and we stand in empathetic solidarity with the families of those who have had their lives harmed or taken by those who have sworn to protect them. We pray for the officers who are unable to speak out against the corruption and bigotry among their ranks for rear of retribution. Simultaneously, we call on not only Presbyterians but all good people of this earth to commit to combatting the sin of racism and authority abuse.

We recommend the following steps:
1.  Encourage church leaders in presbyteries and congregations to call for body cameras on police officers in their community and dash cameras in their vehicles.
2.  Encourage church leaders in presbyteries and congregations to participate in civilian review boards. For communities without a civilian review board, we encourage congregations to press for establishing one, requiring an annual report from that board.
3.  Hold meetings in churches between police officers and those who are often victims.
4.  Consider what can be done to provide a safe haven for police officers who object to the harassing actions of their colleagues.

Resources from the Synod Assembly:

Facing Racism:  A Vision of Beloved Community (PCUSA)   (From 1999.  And not much has changed.  Has your congregation, ministry community read and worked through this? A good starting point.)

A Call for More than Judicial Remedies to the Killing of African American Boys and Men by J. Herbert Nelson  (a must read from one of the most important leaders in our denomination today.)

Prezi Presentation by Margaret Aymer Oget on Ferguson, with written notes for each slide (Margaret put the notes and resource sheet together so that congregations/groups can walk through her Prezi and have conversations themselves.)

Dreams not Fears

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Today at the NY State Capitol many faith leaders joined with union, labor and members of the peace movement as part of the commemoration of the 51st Anniversary this week of the March on Washington and as part of the Moral Week of protests, demonstrations and gatherings.  I was honored to be a part of today’s leadership and to offer the following invocation.  We are part of the growing #MoralMondays movement in New York State, the #1 state with income inequality in the United States.   Thank you to the Labor-Reglion Coalition for it’s organization behind our witness today.  It was an honor to stand with many faith leaders and others from around the State and to be a part of shared witness together!  I especially love this image of going with our dreams and not our fears, for that is in my mind, the urgent task of leadership and faith for the living of these days…

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Let us pray,

gathering first into the silence of this time,

allowing the Great Spirit of God to fill and renew our spirits.  

Let us pray….

 
Today O God we gather as people of faith
who stand against the Empire
here in the shadow of the Capitol Building of the Empire State. 
 
O Lord our God
We are here.
We could be anywhere else in this moment.
But
We
Are
Here.
 
And we will not be moved.
We will not back down.
We will not tire out.
 
Our cause today is justice.
Our cause today is peace.
Our cause today is well-being.
This is our ancient and holy calling
And we are people of faith
so we will not be moved
We will not waver
We will not back down
We will not tire out
For the struggle before us is long
And the adversary before us
will not easily relinquish its power
for it is holding on with all its strength
to the evils of 
greed
destructiveness
separation
capitalism
privilege
prestige.
 
Keep us free from wanting or desiring 
these things O God
for they lure us in too.
Help us to keep clear what Your calling is.
And to Whom we follow
even at the risk of letting go of the things
that offer us a sense of security.
 
We are here today to join our diverse voices
Faithful voices
For justice and for peace
For that seamless garment of 
life abundant for all people
in all places
and for your Creation.
 
For a living wage
For the minimum wage in this State is too low
and families cannot live and sustain real life on this 
“minimum wage.”  
It is unacceptable to us.
It does not value life
It makes a mockery out of work
We want and expect a change
and we will not
support leadership that does not advance and prioritize
the wholeness of families and communities first.
 
For the rights of workers
To safe working conditions
free of discrimination of all kinds.
For dignity and honor in work.
We will not relent from this goal.
For you call us to honor the worker and the labor of their hands.
 
For our youth
that they might have a future 
in the land of the free.
Our youth cry out
So many are left behind in communities that trap
and ensnare them.
policies and police who do not respect them
Insitutions designed to offer one set of our youth
one option and
other another one.
This is unjust and
it is immoral.
it is dehumanizing
and we will not accept this
and so we are here today to speak against all 
these things in God’s Name.
The unspeakable sin and scourge of racism and classism
is unacceptable to us for we follow You O God.
No human being is illegal.
No human being is less than another
No human being is valued more than another.
We are all precious and honored in
Your sight
We are your children.
And so we will stand with all our might and all our strength
In communities where anyone is marginalized.
And we will stand against brutality, inhumanity
We will not be moved
And we will protect and care for our youth 
at all costs.
We will not be moved.
 
Our Creation cries out.
She is dying around us.
And our sin and participation in the killing of your first 
gift, the Creation surrounds us.
We recommit ourselves today to be people whose 
peace and commitments do not just lie with human beings
but with all of Creation,
animals, plants, rivers
streams, mountains, lakes, oceans, and the air.  
We will not be moved.
We recommit ourselves to all that is in our power to heal
and save our beloved, precious Creation.
 
We stand today on the steps of this Capitol building
to say that where there is unchecked power and influence
Where money has more power than the voices of the people
There is evil.
In this time we pray for elected officials who will stand and struggle with the people.
We recommit ourselves and rededicate our lives to the long struggle before us.
For it is the struggle of our faith.
God give us strength.
God give us power.
God give us boldness of action and speech.
God give us humility.
God give us peace.
Help us speak truth to the “power” around us.
Help us to partner in new and creative ways with the communities around us.
 
Remind us of the long and blessed 
tradition of the prophets, ancient, old and new 
in which we stand.
 
Guide our feet today.
While we run this leg of this race.
Guide our feet.
Hold our hands.
Stand by us.
 
We know you are with us, 
God of the Ages.
Amen.
Amen.
Amen.   

Testimony on Overture 15-01

Earth Day 2007 by Bruce Irving (Creative Commons)

Earth Day 2007 by Bruce Irving (Creative Commons)

Good afternoon.  My name is Shannan Vance-Ocampo and I serve Albany Presbytery as their Transitional Presbyter.  I am also a Fellow with GreenFaith which is a national environmental organization committed to interfaith action to stop human-driven climate change from destroying our most precious gift—God’s beloved Creation.

I am here to speak personally in favor of Overture 15-01.  Because I love God and there are not enough words to describe my gratitude for the gift of Creation, for what it has meant in my life—for how God feeds and sustains us—body and spirit—through the unimaginable, mysterious beauty of Creation.  Because I watched a part of the Creation I love, be destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, including the place I learned to swim as a child and first fell in love with our Creator. 

I also speak as one who has half of my family living in Colombia, South America.  We are experiencing the cries of a tortured Creation.  Our sisters and brothers through the World Council of Churches are engaged this year in what we call in Colombia an ayuna, a fast on the first of each month for the Creation.  To join their voices and bodies together as those who follow God in Jesus Christ so that their spirits will be strengthened as they seek to heal the Creation.  Our global Christian partners plea for us to take action now. Let us join them   They are our church too. 

We, the PCUSA must divest immediately from all fossil fuel companies.  They are participants the torture of God’s Creation.  We must end war, because our military is the #1 user of fossil fuels on this planet.  This an overture for nonviolence as followers of the nonviolent Christ, which is what we are called to do as Christians.  To love the Creation is to live into the opportunity before us to be bold and prophetic—which is what Jesus taught. 

Thank you for your service as commissioners to our General Assembly. 

I am praying for you. 

God bless you. 

Thank you Mr. Moderator.